Zwaanendael, Dutch for "Valley of Swans," was the first
Dutch settlement on the Delmarva peninsula, in what is today
Lewes, Delaware. It was established in 1631, but was quickly
overrun and destroyed by the Native American people living there. It has
the distinction of being the first European settlement in the region, though
the first permanent settlement in Delaware was
established by the Swedes in 1638. After the destruction of
Zwaanenael, the Dutch did not return to Delaware until the latter half of
the seventeenth century.
Delaware was first discovered by Europeans in 1609, when the
explorer Henry Hudson sighted the Delaware Bay on August 28.
Since he didn't have any small ships to explore the shallow bay, he
immediately left and headed north to find the Hudson River, soon to be
the site of New Amsterdam -- modern day New York. Of course Hudson
recorded his first find, calling it the "South River" (the Hudson
would be called the "North River"). The Delaware was explored again by
the Dutch several times between 1614 and 1620. One of the explorers,
Cornelis Jacobsen Mey, discovered and named Cape Mey, later renamed
Cape May on the New Jersey
side of the Delaware bay. Eventually these explorations were organized
under the Dutch West India Company founded in 1621, and minor trading
expeditions continued throughout the 1620's. One of these resulted
in the founding of a trading post at Fort Nassau, again on the New
Jersey side near Gloucester. Most others were just quick stops on the
Delaware Bay to see if Dutch traders could pick up any furs from the
Lenni-Lenape or Naticokes they encountered. However, it wasn't
until 1631 that anyone tried to settle on the Delaware side.
In 1629 a group of patroons, organized under Samuel Godyn back
in Amsterdam, planned to buy and settle land along the South River.
They chose the west bank, chartering land between Bombay Hook (the original
Dutch name was "Bompties Hoek") and Cape Henlopen along the
Delaware Bay. Godyn and several other men hired the Dutch navigator
David Pietersen de Vries, a native of Hoorn, Holland, to lead a group
of colonists to establish a new colony. In 1631, de Vries and the
colonists set sail for North America under the command of Captain Peter
Heyes in a ship called the Walvis (Whale). They arrived in the
spring, and the colonists began setting
up a new colony, meant to be a center for farming, ranching, trading, and
whaling. A townsite was established and named Swanendael. A
nearby creek was named "Blommaertkill" (after Samuel Blommaert, one of the
patroons), and the Delaware Bay was dubbed "Godyn's Bay." The fledgling
colony was established by just 33 men with enough supplies to begin
new homes and new lives. The 28 colonists brought by de Vries were joined
by five more from New Amsterdam, including Giles Hosset who became the
leader of the colony. De Vries left the men shortly afterward and
returned to Holland. Most would never be seen again.
In 1632, Peter Minuit informed the West India Company that the Swanendael
colony had been obliterated by native tribes in the area. All men but one
had been killed, with their bodies left to rot and their houses and supplies
burnt and livestock taken. The only survivor was a man named Thunis
Willemsen, who escaped and made it to New Amsterdam. De Vries returned
to the South River by way of the Indies, and arrived late in 1632. Upon
arriving, he met with the local native tribesmen to find out what happened.
Apparently one of the local native chiefs had taken a tin coat of arms
from one of the Dutch buildings. Hosset handled the theft very badly, though
the details of what happened aren't known. But whatever he did, the natives
attacked Swanendael, razing its buildings and killing its inhabitants.
De Vries and the other patroons didn't bother sending a new expedition, and
eventually the Dutch West India Company bought out their title to the land.
Unfortunately, it seems the Dutch experience at Zwaanendael wasn't unique,
as they apparently got along poorly with the native peoples surrounding
the New Amsterdam colony as well. The Dutch returned to Delaware in force
in the later 1640's and 1650's, eventually taking over the Swedish colony
before they themselves were finally forced out of North America by the
Though the name Swanendael, or Zwaanendael, stuck as part of
the town folklore, by the time William Penn and the English took over the
region the town was rebuilt and renamed Lewes.
Today, the only remnant of the first colony is the name.
However, to honor the tercentenary of the first European colony in Delaware
in 1931, the state of Delaware built Zwaanendael House, a smaller replica of
the town hall of Hoorn, Holland, in honor of de Vries. It still stands
and is open to the public; it houses a museum of regional history, though
most of the contents are from the later English colonial and early United
States history. Zwaanendael House is located near the intersection of
Savannah Road and King's Highway in Lewes -- just take Route 9 east from
Highway 1. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, and is free.
It's a nice diversion if Rehoboth and Dewey Beaches are too crowded.
America's Historylands: Landmarks of Liberty, National Geographic
Delaware: A Guide To The First State, ed. Jeanette Eckman, Hastings
House Press; New York, 1955